Cholesterol levels in the blood matter, as high cholesterol levels can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Foods that contain cholesterol may not have a significant effect on blood cholesterol in most people. However, saturated fats and trans fats may negatively affect cholesterol levels.

This article looks at cholesterol and whether a person’s cholesterol levels matter. It also looks at foods that contain cholesterol and how someone’s diet influences their cholesterol levels.

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Cholesterol is a waxy substance that the liver produces. The body requires a certain amount of cholesterol for the body to function properly. It uses cholesterol to build cells and produce vitamins and hormones.

Cholesterol also comes from animal products in the diet, including meat, poultry, and dairy products. This type of cholesterol is dietary cholesterol.

Saturated fats and trans fats can increase cholesterol levels, as they increase the amount of cholesterol the liver produces. In some cases, this may lead to cholesterol levels that may negatively affect health.

Lipoproteins transport cholesterol around the body. There are two main types of lipoproteins: low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which people may refer to as “bad” cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which people may refer to as “good” cholesterol.

An excess of LDL cholesterol can build up in the walls of the arteries, forming plaque. This can narrow the arteries and increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.

HDL cholesterol transports LDL cholesterol away from the arteries and returns it to the liver, where the liver can then remove it from the body.

Yes, a person should generally be mindful of their dietary cholesterol intake. However, devising an optimally nutritious dietary plan will depend on an individual’s activity levels, genetics, preexisting conditions, and age.

Some people may be able to have more dietary cholesterol, while some may have to reduce their intake.

Animal products contain dietary cholesterol, including:

A 2018 review looked at the effects of eggs, one of the highest sources of dietary cholesterol, on blood cholesterol.

According to the research, individuals may respond differently to dietary cholesterol, depending on their genetics and metabolic factors.

In most people, eating dietary cholesterol causes little to no increase in blood cholesterol levels when they consume high amounts of dietary cholesterol. When these people eat dietary cholesterol, the body compensates by producing less cholesterol.

Dietary cholesterol may increase LDL cholesterol levels in people who are hyper-responders. Hyper-responders are people who experience a larger increase in blood cholesterol when they consume dietary cholesterol compared with the rest of the population.

In people who eat eggs as part of a weight loss or weight maintenance diet, consuming eggs may cause minimal changes to LDL and HDL cholesterol. It may cause a slight improvement in LDL profiles and HDL levels.

Overall, research suggests that the dietary cholesterol from egg intake does not negatively affect blood cholesterol levels. In some cases, egg intake may lead to improvements in LDL and HDL cholesterol.

According to a 2018 review, it may be the consumption of saturated fats that increases LDL cholesterol, rather than dietary cholesterol itself.

Many sources of dietary cholesterol, aside from eggs and shrimp, are also high in saturated fats. Saturated fats increase LDL cholesterol levels and the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend limiting foods high in saturated fats to help keep cholesterol levels at typical levels.

A 2020 review from the American Heart Association (AHA) looked at the link between dietary cholesterol and cardiovascular risk.

The review found mixed results. Most research suggests there is no significant link between dietary cholesterol, including egg consumption, with coronary heart disease, heart attack, or stroke.

Other research found that consuming half an egg a day may link to a 6% increase in cardiovascular risk. Other studies also found a link between diabetes and egg consumption with coronary heart disease.

Other factors, such as diet and lifestyle, may also play a part in these results. Overall, the research suggested no significant link between egg consumption and cardiovascular risk.

The researchers also noted that in the United States, many foods that can contribute to high cholesterol are high in saturated fats. They also stated that people frequently consume them alongside foods high in saturated fats.

In contrast, heart-healthy diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, are low in cholesterol.

Overall, the review concluded that nutritious eating patterns may be the best dietary option for optimal cardiovascular health.

Nutritious foods are generally low in cholesterol as they minimize saturated fats. These foods include:

  • vegetables
  • fruits
  • whole grains
  • low fat or fat free dairy
  • lean protein or plant-based protein
  • nuts and seeds
  • liquid vegetable oils

A 2018 review suggests that it is the saturated fat content in foods that is high in dietary cholesterol, rather than the cholesterol itself, that may increase the risk of heart disease.

The exception to this is eggs and shrimp, which are low in saturated fats. The evidence is not clear on how dietary cholesterol affects people with diabetes.

Dietary guidance from the AHA suggests that people limit egg intake to one per day, due to the high dietary cholesterol that egg yolks contain.

Shrimp and shellfish are also high in dietary cholesterol. A 3-ounce serving of shrimp is roughly equal to one egg. People can include shrimp and shellfish in a heart-healthy diet that includes lean or plant-based protein.

Vegetarians or those who do not eat meat products may be able to consume higher levels of eggs and dairy. For older adults without high cholesterol, eating two eggs a day can be part of a nutritious diet.

People with high cholesterol levels, diabetes, or risk factors for heart failure may need to limit their dietary cholesterol intake.

Other research suggests that dietary cholesterol does not significantly affect blood cholesterol in most people.

Evidence suggests that dietary cholesterol does not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, but saturated fats and trans fats do.

The CDC recommends limiting foods high in saturated fats. These foods include:

The organization also recommends including foods that are high in nutritious, unsaturated fats, such as:

The CDC also encourages increasing the intake of high fiber foods, such as:

Other ways to lower blood cholesterol include:

  • engaging in regular physical activity, with at least 150–300 minutes of moderate exercise weekly
  • avoiding or quitting smoking, if applicable
  • attending regular cholesterol screenings, particularly if people have a family history of high cholesterol
  • discussing how to manage cholesterol with a healthcare professional
  • taking any cholesterol-lowering medications as a doctor prescribes, alongside diet and lifestyle changes

The following are commonly asked questions about cholesterol.

Does it matter if a person has high cholesterol?

High cholesterol levels in the blood matter because it can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Why do I have high cholesterol if I eat healthy?

A person’s diet is not the only factor affecting a person’s cholesterol levels. Other factors include genetics, a person’s age and sex, smoking, and a lack of physical activity.

Can a person be healthy and have high cholesterol?

A person can still be healthy while having high overall cholesterol. High LDL cholesterol can lead to health problems.

Learn more about whether a person can be healthy with high cholesterol.

Does LDL cholesterol have a purpose?

Cholesterol is necessary to life, as it makes up the cell walls of every cell in the body.

LDL, sometimes called “bad” cholesterol, is a type of fat that serves a function in the body. LDL moves cholesterol around the body to the cells that need it. Elevated LDL levels can cause health problems if a person has too much of it.

High levels of LDL cholesterol and low levels of HDL cholesterol may be risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

Although there is conflicting research, the evidence seems to suggest that dietary cholesterol does not have a significant effect on blood cholesterol levels in most people.

Sources of dietary cholesterol, such as red meat, may be high in saturated fats, which can increase LDL cholesterol and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Eating a heart-healthy diet that is low in saturated fats may help people lower or maintain optimal cholesterol levels.

However, researchers still need further evidence to find out the health effects of dietary cholesterol in people with diabetes.